Ontario’s elementary students are faring better at writing and literacy, but are falling behind in math.

According to test results compiled by the Education Quality and Accountability Office – an arm’s length agency that designs math and reading tests administered in the province – 2013 marks five years of trending decline in student performance on math tests.

In Ontario, students write standardized math tests in grades 3, 6 and 9.

Just 57 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial math standards in 2013, down from 63 per cent in 2009.

Grade 3 students also showed lower rates of math proficiency, with 67 per cent of students meeting the bar this year, compared with 70 per cent in 2009.

“Elementary schools are losing an increasing number of students in math achievement between Grades 4 and 6,” EQAO said in a news release issued Wednesday. “In each of the last five years, there have been increasing numbers of students who no longer meet the provincial math standard in Grade 6 despite having met it in Grade 3.”

Almost one in five Grade 6 students fits that description this year, the statement said.

However the group reported some good news in the form of improved reading and literacy scores.

According to EQAO, 68 per cent of Grade 3 students and 77 per cent of Grade 6 students are now meeting the provincial reading standard. That marks an increase of seven percentage points and eight percentage points, respectively, from five years ago.

“Ontario elementary schools keep getting better at developing the literacy skills that are so fundamental to our students’ long-term success,” EQAO CEO Bruce Rodrigues said in the statement. “As a province, though, we still struggle to find the right formula for helping more students succeed in math.”

Responding to the report, Ontario Minister of Education Liz Sandals said the results may indicate that teachers need to develop a higher comfort level with math.

“I think that the academic background of a lot of our elementary teachers is more in the arts,” Sandals said. “They don’t necessarily have an extensive background themselves in math and science.”

She pointed to that as a reason why reading and writing scores are comparatively better.

“We need to deal with math so teachers have the same comfort level with teaching math as they do reading and writing,” Sandals said.

Speaking with CP24 after Sandals’ comments, People for Education Executive Director Annie Kidder said teacher training may play a role in test scores, but can’t provide the whole picture.

“It may partly be how teachers are trained, but that hasn’t changed and the scores are going down,” Kidder said.

She pointed instead toward societal attitudes that give the message math is hard, or just for some people.

“There may be more we need to do as parents in terms of how we talk and think about math,” Kidder said. “I think we have a tendency to put it in a different category that may have changed some students’ attitudes about math.”

She also said that while the scores are useful for showing where the system needs to improve, Ontario students still rank well in all categories when compared to other students in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Ontario elementary students are roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to math achievement according to a 2011 study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

In a comparison of Grade 4 students from various educational jurisdictions around the world, the study found that 20 jurisdictions had an average score significantly higher than Ontario’s, five had a similar average score and 31 had a significantly lower average.

While data was not available for all provinces, the same study ranked Alberta students as showing slightly lower average math achievement than Ontario students, while Quebec students ranked slightly higher.

While EQAO did not have research available to explain why Ontario elementary students have been slipping with math, Rodrigues told cp24.com “the information that we have gives us cause for pause to see what in fact are some of the underlying factors.”

While he agreed with Kidder that societal attitudes may cause some to peg themselves as ‘not good at math,’ he disagreed that teachers need to have a math background in order to help students master math.

“When we look at what we know, there are classrooms where students are achieving and doing well even though teachers don’t have a math background,” Rodrigues said.

He agreed there needs to be a discussion about how to help students get better at math and said a shift in thinking may be necessary.

“We don’t normally say ‘well I don’t read,’” Rodrigues said. “Our societal culture has accepted the fact that some are good at math and some aren’t.”

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